Meet Calgary Folk Music Festival’s volunteer army

For one extremely long weekend every July Prince’s Island Park turns into a folk music lover’s paradise complete with inexplicably delicious food stands a makeshift record store a raucous beer garden and of course an eclectic and inspiring lineup of musicians. This is not a secret. But the true magic of the Calgary Folk Music Festival doesn’t happen on the mainstage. And no it’s not even at the side-stage workshops even if they do so often seem like they’ve been assembled by a brilliant mad scientist.

The real heart and soul of the festival is happening behind the scenes: backstage in the hospitality area and at the legendary invite-only after-parties. The secret of the Calgary folk fest is its army of volunteers.

This year more than 1600 unpaid volunteers will work on nearly 80 separate crews that will take care of just about every aspect of the operations on the festival site. The guy serving you beer? He’s a volunteer. The nurse treating your foot after you stepped on a splinter dancing barefoot to Michael Franti and Spearhead? She’s a volunteer too. The people hauling equipment selling CDs in the record tent taking your ticket at the front gate and picking up your garbage well they’re all volunteers. And while they’re all hard at work and dog-tired from spending the entire weekend on-site none of them would trade places with any audience members enjoying the music from the front of the stage.

“Whenever I’m orienting new volunteers I always talk about the great sense of pride and the ownership that they take on with their position” says volunteer co-ordinator Talia Potter a one-time volunteer herself before joining the staff five years ago. “Being a patron at the folk festival is great. But when you walk into that park and you’re one of the sea of people in the same colour shirt you see Jeff Tweedy or Arrested Development onstage and you know that you picked them up from the airport or you served them dinner or you made sure they got water when they needed it — there is a great sense of satisfaction and pride in that.”

In some ways the volunteer corps almost feels like a secret society of music lovers. Still the secret isn’t exactly well-kept: Potter has never advertised or actively recruited volunteers but every year she gets far more applicants than she can use. This year she sifted through nearly 1000 new applications and each was second in line to the 77 per cent of last year’s volunteer force that elected to return. All but 380 of the newbies were turned away; only those who could live up to the time commitment were given positions.

At a recent “pick-up party” — where volunteers congregated to pick up their festival packages before their work kicked into high gear — the atmosphere was a mixture of neighbourhood block party and high school reunion. Veteran volunteers wandered around in T-shirts from years past (the older the shirt the greater the pride) and many showed up in station wagons with children in tow. Volunteers are rewarded handsomely for the minimum 16 hours that they must work (the time commitment varies by crew) receiving free admission to the entire four-day festival complimentary meals a festival T-shirt and access to any after-parties. The chance to form friendships seems more valuable to many of the long-term volunteers than a free weekend of music.

“It’s a huge community builder” says Diane McGeachy who has been volunteering for seven years at a backstage snack bar. “One of the reasons I come back every year is to see this whole group. I think on our crew we have an 80 to 90 per cent return rate. These are some people that I’ve become friends with and I only get to see on the nights that we’re volunteering. Some of my best moments are obviously about the music but with the volunteering there’s a lot of fun that happens.”

And that community can often go beyond friendship. According to Potter more than one person has met their spouse while volunteering at the folk fest.

“In the last two years we’ve had two festival families sort of founding families that have had kids. And their kids have grown up to be volunteers” she says. “Just last summer these two families became one family because their kids got married.”

Desmond Murphy’s children are too young to think about marrying other volunteers just yet but they are growing up on the volunteer circuit. Murphy began volunteering roughly 15 years ago and currently heads the ID crew which sets volunteers up before the festival kicks off. Not only is his wife a long-time member of his crew but his 13-year-old daughter has now reached the age where she can officially volunteer while his 10-year-old son helps out in an unofficial capacity. Murphy says the experience offers his kids much more than a top-notch musical education.

“It’s a fantastic way to get the youth into the spirit of volunteerism and to be contributing to something that’s going to be benefitting the community” he says. “They learn about contribution and that it doesn’t always have to be paid work. The perks for the folk fest volunteers are absolutely fantastic so they certainly aren’t doing it for free. But it’s fun. You never hear people saying that it’s a chore they look forward to it every single year largely because of the volunteering and not even necessarily because of the festival itself.”

If it weren’t for the hours upon hours of hard work it would almost sound too good to be true: During the four days it’s a village of music lovers congregating to help stage a world-class music festival. By night it’s dancing and partying. Potter says that once a festival-goer becomes entrenched in volunteer culture it’s almost impossible to go back to being a festival civilian.

“It’s hard to go back once you know what the inner workings look like — it’s hard to go back to just sitting there” she says. “I have had people who after 10 years of volunteering have wanted to take a year off. But after that year they say ‘It was great to see all of that music but I just kept thinking that there were things that I could have been doing.’ To be involved and to be an instrumental cog in that is important.”

Applications to apply for next year’s festival will be available on the festival’s website beginning 3 1 2011.